“…this last dyke.”
Coming at the end of a simple sentence in Arun Shourie’s Anita Gets Bail, these three words are the soul of the book. They encapsulate the slim book’s single theme: India’s judiciary, the judges who populate it, judgments that reflect its intellect, intelligence, integrity. Its thirteen chapters are about despair and faith. They are about frustration and hope.
They tell us, through real, lived, felt experiences that our judiciary and, very specifically, our Supreme Court, are the ultimate protection against political caprice, financial clout and administrative whimsy. They show us through cameos of human situations and citations from judicial orders how, in our judiciary’s hands lies the safety of the citizen, the security of its liberties, the sanity of its nationhood. They also tell us, startlingly, how those hands can and do often err, can and do often hurt, can and do often leave justice threadbare and stranded on the street of black gowns and white collars.
And yet our courts are ,as nothing else is or can be, the last dyke behind which a citizen, an individual, you and me, may cower against the heaving of a mindless sea or the lashing of a malevolent wave.
“I am glad,” Dr BR Ambedkar said while presenting the draft Constitution to the Constituent Assembly on November 4, 1948, “that the Draft Constitution has discarded the village and adopted the individual as its unit…” Arun Shourie’s book, sub-titled What Are Our Courts Doing? What Should We Do About Them? gives us a visual – vividly visual – sense of how that individual is faring behind that dyke and how that dyke itself is doing.
“Vividly visual” the book is, from the very first line of the first chapter, which is about a real-life experience of Arun and his wife Anita Shourie. “‘Sir, police waalaa aayaa hai, Madam ko bulaaney ko kah rahaa hai’ – it was the watchman, he had come rushing up: ‘A policeman has come, and is asking for Madam.’”
That gripping chapter is about Anita Shourie, braving a Parkinson’s condition, battling for bail in a case that accused her of a violation of environment regulations by building a house (which the family had never built) on a plot (which they did not own). The twelve chapters that follow deal with the contrived delays of the law, the contrived speed of the law, the refusal of the law to see the light of the day, the depiction by the law of the darkest hour of the night as the brightest hour.
Through the disproportionate assets case against Jayalalithaa, the Sohrabuddin “fake encounter” case, the suicide of the Arunachal leader Kalikho Pul, the death of Justice Loya, the “Vande Mataram” issue, right up to the very current Sabarimala dispute, the author takes us across the field of India’s litigation. The grey cloud of dismay is ever so often ambushed by a ray of laughter at judges’ linguistic traits, the lack of grammar in one, the lack of humour in another, the gold-braided pomposity of one, the stark simplicity of another.
Books on the law and law-cases written by lawyers and judges are a whole genre in themselves. They are what may be called law-literature. But here is a book on lawyers and the law, judges and judgments by one who is not a lawyer by training but is one by instinct. And, one should add, by upbringing.
His father too was a lawyer by instinct. Not of or in but with the law, HD Shourie (1911-2005) was a world-scale pioneer of consumer rights, initiating public interest litigation and catalysing landmark judgments from the Supreme Court of India. And like his son, he had a bounty of the saving grace of humour. The founder of the hard-as-nails NGO, Common Cause, is also the compiler of Funniest Jokes In The World (Penguin, 2001).
If Shourie Senior moved from the civil services to the world of courtroom battles with a sense of anxiety relieved by humour, Shourie Junior has moved from journalism via politics to a rare understanding of the ways of the law. And he describes them in this book with a combination of wan realism and wry humour.
Does Arun Shourie end with worry about India’s future as a nation governed by the rule of law? Or does he have hope? Hard to say. But this one may say with complete assurance: If as a school student young Arun had been given a deck of optional themes to pick one for his essay-writing debut, he would have chosen the one a young Gujarati chose for his matriculation examination, way back in 1887: “The Advantages Of A Cheerful Disposition”.
No prizes for guessing that student’s name. His spirit imbues Anita Gets Bail and is, for Arun, in itself the last dyke.